This week we celebrate International Women’s Day, a holiday observed around the world as a chance to raise awareness about gender disparities and promote women’s rights. After a groundbreaking few months for American women – when a historic number of women ran for and won seats in Congress, announced their candidacy for president, made headlines for winning record numbers of Nobel Prizes, Oscars, and more – there are no doubt some who are asking, “Aren’t we past this?”
Women are gaining ground in countless fields. So why are women still lagging behind?
As the leader of an institution committed to shaping girls into future leaders, I’m excited to see women rising through the ranks, winning prizes, and taking a stand more than ever before. As an educator of girls, however, I’m still concerned: Our girls’ voices don’t yet carry the influence of their male peers.
Take, for example, research demonstrating that men speak out more than women at work, interrupting female colleagues 33 percent more often than they interrupt their male peers. Even when the woman is a Supreme Court justice. And little boys interrupt 3 times more than girls, in class and on the playground. Even though, if those same girls are on their own, in a single-sex environment, they speak up as often as boys.
Or consider recent studies showing that, while women are winning more scholarly prizes for scientific research, they are not getting as much respect – or money – for their breakthroughs. And that, across a wide variety of academic disciplines, women are still much less likely to serve on important conference panels, give talks, or be invited to speak about their work.
Women are gaining more seats at the proverbial table but, by and large, don’t have an influential voice once there. What if the problem starts, in part, when we’re young?
Lately, our focus as educators and parents has been nurturing girls to be confident, teaching them to be resilient, and encouraging them to be brave. But this misses a critical step. We need to do more to help our girls develop and effectively use their voice.
This starts by identifying gender norms at play in our kids’ daily lives. For example, by talking about pervasive social dynamics that lead boys to speak more than female classmates – and helping girls realize when they don’t voice their opinions and understand why they should practice asserting themselves more often. Being honest with ourselves about this disparity also helps teachers and other adults realize we need to encourage our girls to actively lead -- and yes, interrupt -- during any class or activity. It also helps counter the pervasive bias that makes us think women and girls talk more than they do.
Parents should also look for ways to help girls practice using their voice. Home can be the safest space to develop foundational skills that children need later in life, and this applies for girls learning to speak their mind. When making family decisions, ask your daughter for input. Even if something seems minor or you know what the outcome will be – everything from what movie you’ll watch together to what curfew will be – have her argue for what she wants. The outcome doesn’t matter as much as the chance to build confidence and comfort with speaking up.
Consider the same thing in public. When you’re at a restaurant, in an amusement park, or on a trip, ask your daughter to be the family spokesperson. Find moments when she can advocate for not just herself but for others, too. Small things make a big difference. Practicing assertive communication skills early on builds critical muscle memory, making it more natural for girls to use their voice effectively later in life.
Above all else, remind any young girl in your life that her voice matters. That you value her speaking her mind.
Every day, we teach the girls at my school to demand a seat at the table. We must also ensure they know how to speak up when they’re there. The first step is to teach every young woman to use her voice, loudly and effectively.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s start by encouraging our girls to not just raise their hand in class but to interrupt, too.